A former county judge asked a court Wednesday to dismiss a lawsuit filed over his last-minute endorsement of a proposal by a Mississippi company to build a casino in Russellville.
Casino opponent James Price Knight of Russellville filed the suit Dec. 27 in an attempt to prevent then-County Judge Jim Ed Gibson of Pope County from issuing a letter of support for Gulfside Partnership to obtain one of the state’s first licenses for a full-fledged casino. The complaint was later amended after it was discovered that Gibson, who retired on Dec. 31 after 20 years in office, had already penned the endorsement.
Messages left for Gibson were not returned as of late Wednesday.
Pope County was one of the few counties in the state where voters in November rejected constitutional Amendment 100, which authorized placing casinos in Jefferson and Pope counties as well as alongside existing gambling facilities at the racetracks in Hot Springs and West Memphis.
Under Amendment 100, applications for casino licenses in Jefferson and Pope counties must include letters of support from either the county judge or the quorum court. If the casino is to be built within city limits, it also must have the mayor’s endorsement.
In the dismissal motion filed by Russellville attorney Richard Peel, Gibson said the lawsuit is moot because of the unconstitutionality of a local ordinance approved by Pope County voters in November that would require an election before the county judge or Quorum Court could support a casino proposal.
“Amendment 100 sets forth the requirements that must be met in order to obtain a casino license, and a local election to approve the county judge’s letter of support is not one of them,” Peel said in the motion. No court has ruled on the ordinance.
To demonstrate the “absurdity of the Pope County Ordinance,” Peel argued in the dismissal request, only 18,051 ballots were cast in Pope County during the general election and the language of the ordinance would require that more than 95.5 percent — or 17,244 — of the voters would have to approve the county judge’s letter of support.
“Plaintiff’s entire case is premised on the validity of the ordinance, and it cannot stand,” the motion stated. “The ordinance should be declared invalid and the complaint dismissed.”
Furthermore, Gibson is no longer a sitting county judge and lacks authority to take any action the lawsuit is requesting, Peel wrote in the dismissal motion.
“The Second Amended Complaint makes no allegation against Judge Gibson in his individual capacity,” Peel wrote. “The relief it seeks can only be obtained against a sitting government official, which Judge Gibson is not.”
The state Supreme Court assigned 6th Judicial Circuit Judge Mackie Pierce as a special judge in the case at the request of Circuit Judge Ken Coker of Russellville.
The Arkansas Racing Commission and Pope County’s new county judge, Ben Cross, who took office Jan. 1, were added to the lawsuit last week.
Before writing the endorsement, Gibson did “extensive due diligence” into Gulfside, according to the motion. Gulfside, which announced plans last month to build a 600-room, $254 million hotel and casino in Russellville, operates the Island View Casino Resort in Gulfport, Miss.
In his research, Gibson said in the motion that he found that Gulfside has an “unblemished record of regulatory compliance” and was considered by Gulfport community leaders to be a “responsible corporate citizen and a generous contributor to the community.”
It was Gibson who “secured a commitment” from Gulfside to build the resort-style casino, hotel, restaurants and entertainment venue as well as a pledge from the casino operator to invest $150 million in the initial phase of the project, according to the motion.
The proposal included more than 1,500 permanent hospitality jobs and an annual payroll of $60.5 million, Peel wrote in the motion.
“He also took into account the more than $28 million in gaming taxes that will go to the county, state, and Arkansas Racing Commission, as well as ad valorem, property, sales, and other traditional taxes,” Peel said in the motion.
The company’s announcement this week of a $20 million promise to set up a nonprofit, the Pope County Education Foundation, is proof of Gulfside’s initial promise to Gibson to support local education, Peel wrote.
Casey Castleberry, Gulfside’s attorney, said in an email Wednesday that Gibson’s letter of support came after months of conversations with Gulfside.
“In these visits, we expressed our strong commitment to Pope County,” Castleberry said. “If granted a license, we look forward to executing our plans to support the region through high-paying jobs, tax dollars and ongoing community support, including the recently announced Pope County Education Foundation.”
The Arkansas Racing Commission is meeting today to review proposed casino licensing rules.
If approved at the Thursday meeting, the rules will be published for a 30-day public comment period before receiving final approval from the commission and lawmakers. Casino license applications for either Jefferson or Pope counties can be submitted at that point and review of the applications will begin no later than June 1, according to the amendment.
The Racing Commission, which is within the state Department of Finance and Administration, will oversee the licensing and operation of the four casinos that voters authorized in November.
Last week, the commission amended the initial draft of the rules to stipulate that any endorsement from a county’s quorum court also must be signed off by the county judge, all quorum court members or the mayor, if applicable. The endorsements must accompany the application, the proposed rules state.